Aspen Skiing Co. aims to reach ‘influencers’ on climate issue during X Games |

Aspen Skiing Co. aims to reach ‘influencers’ on climate issue during X Games

Athletes practice on the X Games slopestyle course at Buttermilk on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Aspen Skiing Co. has long acknowledged that X Games, its signature event, has a big carbon footprint from travel of spectators and athletes, lighting and heating at the venue and snowmaking — lots of snowmaking.

So 18 years into hosting the event, what are Skico and event owner ESPN doing about the carbon footprint? Not a lot, at least not on the surface. But Auden Schendler, Skico’s senior vice president for sustainability and community engagement, said the company’s broader environmental initiative reduces the footprint of the event. Plus, the company aims to leverage the X Games’ lofty stature and visibility to spread its message that national policy change is needed on climate issues.

“Our approach has been go for the influencers, to the extent you’re able to,” Schendler said. “This is a time when there’s a lot of influential people in town.”

Skico is hosting a presentation by climate activist Bill McKibben on Saturday night. His talk, “What the Heck Do We Do Now?” will be held from 6 to 7 p.m. at the Limelight Hotel Aspen.

McKibben is fresh off getting arrested for protesting Chase Bank’s recent increase in investments in the oil and gas industry.

“McKibben is probably the most important climate activist in the world,” Schendler said. He’s speaking in return for some downhill ski lessons and access to the slopes.

While the audience is limited due to the size of the venue, Schendler said media coverage and conversations around the presentation will spur amplify the event.

Schendler and Skico have adopted a position that working for national policy change — everything from lobbying government officials to donating to political action committees dedicated to ousting climate deniers — is the most important action to take.

Schendler takes the somewhat controversial position that an individual or company’s offsetting of carbon emissions is secondary to working on policy change. In this case, he feels Skico should be inspiring action during the X Games rather than, say, planting trees in the rainforest to offset the emissions produced by the Games.

“Climate change isn’t a problem of individual responsibility beyond our obligation to act as citizens in a democracy,” he said. “It’s a structural problem created by the fossil fuel industry — which captured government and media and created the fossil-based system in which we live.”

He argues that focusing on reducing carbon emissions as an individual or a company can be a “distraction” from the bigger goal of policy change. Getting people to feel like they must focus on individual lifestyle changes rather than work to get the country off fossil fuels and into renewable energy is a bit of trickery, according to Schendler.

“It plays into the hands of the fossil fuel industry,” he said. “We’re all stuck on navel gazing and blaming each other.”

His advice — do your best to reduce your carbon emissions, but don’t dwell and do spend most of your effort on policy. Schendler quoted McKibben to emphasize the point: “Sure, screw in a new light bulb, but then go screw in a new senator.”

So, about the X Games itself — Skico doesn’t break out the specific carbon footprint for the event, but it calculates its annual carbon emissions. The emissions to prepare for and run the X Games are included in the calculation.

The abundance of natural snowfall reduced the amount of snowmaking required this year. Skico officials estimate 35 million gallons were used for snowmaking at Main Buttermilk, where the events are held. Some of the snow would have been made even if the X Games wasn’t hosted, but a significant amount goes to building the ramps for the big air competitions and the superpipe. Dirt is used as a base layer on the superpipe to reduce the amount of snow required.

Schendler previously estimated that snowmaking at Buttermilk accounts for 5% of Skico’s overall annual carbon emissions. The snowmaking system has been consistently upgraded with more efficient infrastructure.

Skico has reduced its overall carbon emissions from 29.82 tons during the 1999-2000 season to 24.72 tons in 2017-18, the latest season available.

In addition to that reduction, Skico was a partner in a clean energy project that uses methane from a coal mine near Paonia and converts it into energy. Skico has also supported Holy Cross Energy’s efforts to convert more of its portfolio to renewable energy, which lowers the carbon footprint of its customers.

Schendler said more reductions of Skico’s carbon emissions are coming — but the big push is on policy.

Skico is a big supporter of Protect Our Winters, which engages athletes and businesses of all types in the outdoor industry to lobby for climate policy change. POW and its affiliated political action committee have made it a goal to engage young voters to support Congressional candidates in key battles that will make climate a priority. POW won’t be at the X Games due to a full schedule and the expense.

“We are planning almost 200 events across six states in 2020 and we prioritized places we believe we can get the highest activation and engagement,” POW executive director Mario Molina wrote in an email. “There’s a lot going on at X Games.”

ESPN isn’t taking direct action to reduce the X Games’ carbon footprint, but the company is concerned about sustainability.

“ESPN strives to promote sustainable practices in communities where we engage with sports fans,” the company said in a statement to The Aspen Times. “We reduce the impact of our events, including X Games, through waste minimization, the use of renewable resources, environmentally conscious products and energy efficient practices. Many of these processes are embedded within event production operations, making our sustainability efforts more engrained and efficient.”

Efforts include sustainability ambassadors and a Green Team Program that recruits students from Aspen High School Earth Club and University of Colorado Environmental Center to attend waste stations and sort recyclable and compostable materials from garbage.